San Francisco’s under-resourced environmental department seeks funding

Agency hasn’t received cash from The City’s general fund since 2003—but that could soon change

When San Francisco’s Department of the Environment was created in 1996, The City was a vastly different place.

It was a time before tech campuses dominated the skyline and when threats of a warming world felt distant and theoretical. It was a time when the word “sustainability” was so seldom used, it was deemed a term you’d have to “spell to people over the phone,” according to The City’s first environmental report.

In this context, the Department of Environment was tasked with implementing a pest management plan and adopting greener building standards.

But as summer wildfires choke the air and winter heatwaves set new temperature records across the state, San Franciscans are starting to feel the impacts of climate change. At the same time, the department has been left to confront a worsening global crisis with scant staff and little financial support from City Hall.

“This is not just some extra, like-to-have department,” said Elena Engel of the environmental nonprofit 350 San Francisco. “This is part of The City.”

Last week, the Department of the Environment announced it would be requesting approximately $3.2 million from the General Fund — the first time it’s asked for such funding in nearly two decades. The money would be used for the staffing needed to implement The City’s Climate Action Plan, a roadmap to achieve net zero emissions by 2040 by decarbonizing buildings and transportation, and improving biodiversity.

While environmental groups are rallying leadership for millions more to be earmarked for climate action, any General Fund money would significantly increase what the department historically has received.

“If we don’t fund climate, all of those other things (in The City’s budget) will be worse and require more money,” said Engel.

The request is also poised to test Mayor London Breed’s willingness to bolster San Francisco’s reputation as a climate leader with dollars and cents. Despite being viewed as one of the greenest cities in the nation, San Francisco failed to fund the department tasked to protect residents and infrastructure against rising seas, worsening wildfires and warming temperatures.

Last year, the Department’s annual operating budget was $23 million. By contrast, the mayor set aside over a billion dollars toward homelessness that same year.

“It’s a bit of smoke and mirrors,” said Francesca Vietor, the former president of the first Commission on the Environment, a body established by the Board of Supervisors in 1993 and charged with advising The City on environmental priorities.

“San Francisco and the Bay Area are very progressive — I mean, we’re environmentalists,” Vietor said. But “when you start to look under the hood, it’s like, whoa, yes, woefully under-resourced, not doing the kinds of projects that we could be doing with the innovation and commitment that we have in the Bay.”

But now, a window of opportunity has opened to fund climate policy in earnest. The mayor’s budget office expects a $108 million surplus of General Fund dollars over the next two budget years. A portion of that money, many say, should be allocated toward making progress on The City’s climate goals laid out late last year.

“We’re basically jumpstarting the mayor’s Climate Action Plan,” said Debbie Raphael, the Department of Environment’s director. “What we ultimately need to do is get off of fossil fuels in buildings, cars and trucks. That’s the bottom line. This money is going to help us.”

Humble start

The Department of Environment was created by voters in the late 90s and was originally what Vietor called an unfunded mandate, tasked mainly with public outreach, pest management and greening buildings.

“It was very small,” said Raphael. “The idea being it was a place for the public to come and weigh in on environmental issues.”

In 2000, the department had eight employees and expanded to include clean air and energy programs.​​ A year later, it nearly tripled in size after it assumed responsibility for The City’s Solid Waste Management Program, which includes toxics reduction and recycling.

Today the department boasts over 115 employees and oversees a variety of city operations, everything from climate change to zero waste and urban forestry. But despite its widening reach and responsibility, the department stopped receiving General Fund money in 2003 due to a budget crisis that forced cuts citywide. Since then, it has cobbled together revenue from a patchwork of refuse fees, work orders and grant funding.

“I always tell people it’s a bit of a blessing and a curse,” said Raphael. “The blessing is when the economy’s really bad, and general fund departments get hit hard, we don’t generally have those kinds of setbacks. But the curse, the challenge, is that all of our revenue has some sort of nexus. It has some sort of obligation associated with who’s giving it to us.”

Even as climate scientists continue to project worsening megadroughts and rapidly rising sea levels, the department has been hamstrung in its ability to respond, beholden to the contractual, and often temporary, limits of work orders or grant funding.

In some instances, The City has benefited from targeted funding streams. For example, nearly 40% of the department’s revenue comes from Recology’s refuse rates, fees generated by San Francisco’s three-bin waste collection system. The catch is the department can only apply that money toward related initiatives, which has shaped San Francisco’s leadership in the Zero Waste and composting space.

“No other city has that kind of a record,” said Engel. “That was where the money was coming from, so that’s where the money went.”

Lack of funding

But composting alone will not solve The City’s growing list of environmental issues. “It’s become increasingly challenging to get the work of The City done without a stable funding source,” said Raphael.

Still, signals of urgency are building among city leaders. Last year, the department received $1 million from the General Fund, requested by supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Gordon Mar and Matt Haney to conduct long-term analysis of the costs required to address climate change impacts and kickstart a Climate Equity Hub which would provide workforce training, outreach to support the transition to electric construction and technologies.

It’s a start, said Engel, but it’s not nearly enough. “In the end, we don’t have a choice. It’s just a question of how fast we move.”

Despite the financial hurdles, the department has amassed an impressive track record. Beyond leading the nation on zero waste, The City has been an early adopter of new technologies, such as rooftop solar, and was quick to ban natural gas in new construction and eliminate plastic bags and Styrofoam containers in stores and restaurants.

In 2019, San Francisco’s emissions dropped to 41% below 1990 levels, six years ahead of its initial goal, thanks in part to The City’s shift to cleaner grid-supplied electricity and programs like CleanPowerSF.

Last year, the Board of Supervisors and the mayor signed new and aggressive emissions reductions targets into law, requiring San Francisco to become carbon neutral by 2040. This means the Department of Environment must work with other departments to dramatically reduce or offset greenhouse gas emissions in the building, transit and energy sectors, a process that activists argue has been opaque so far.

“Right now, what climate action we are taking across The City is hodgepodge and noncoordinated,” said Daniel Tahara of the San Francisco Climate Emergency Coalition. The City’s Climate Action Plan is supposed to be a citywide roadmap, he said, but no one is tracking results or outcomes.

Still, Tahara is optimistic the recent funding request is a sign of much-needed momentum. “If it makes it in the mayor’s budget, we’re basically good. We don’t have to fight the fight at the board.”

The mayor’s office declined to weigh in on how much it will allocate to the Department of Environment at this stage. All city departments are currently working to submit proposals to the budget office with a Tuesday deadline, said Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the mayor.

“I’m under no illusion that $3.2 million is solving the climate crisis,” said Raphael. “This is an investment in a small city agency.” But, she acknowledged, any funding will be a meaningful step toward enacting real climate policy in San Francisco.

“If it’s just a plan on paper, then we’re wasting our breath,” said Raphael. “We need to see action, not words on a page.”

Lori Lambertson, an educator with the Exploratorium teaching a group about King Tides as the water flows onto Pier 14 on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Jessica Wolfrom/The Examiner)

Lori Lambertson, an educator with the Exploratorium teaching a group about King Tides as the water flows onto Pier 14 on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Jessica Wolfrom/The Examiner)

Caltrain seeks $260 million to complete electrification

State budget surplus eyed to finish transformative rail project

As Bay Area faces prolonged drought, recycling and desalination are the only two real options

Conservation techniques alone are not going to solve the water crisis, experts say